007 finds his groove in espionage thriller From Russia With Love
Film producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman took a big gamble in 1961 when they optioned the film rights to writer Ian Fleming’s James Bond spy novels. Sure, the books had sold millions of copies worldwide, had been translated into 20 languages, and made Fleming, a member of British intelligence during World War II, a millionaire. But the transition from page to screen wasn’t an easy sell. Would American filmgoers buy a British hero? Were the intricate plots too convoluted for mainstream audiences? Were the stories too violent?
It turned out Broccoli and Saltzman had nothing to worry about. Dr. No, released in October 1962, grossed $6 million worldwide off a $1 million budget. That was serious box office money at the time, and a strong return on investment in any era. Their company, EON Productions, immediately went to work on the next 007 extravaganza. It would be bigger than the last one with twice the budget, and would also bring along a whole new set of challenges.
The first question was which story to choose. By the time Dr. No hit theaters, there were already 10 James Bond novels in print, all bestsellers. Life magazine did EON’s job for them. In early 1961, when the American media was caught up in the wave of JFK fever brought on by the inauguration of John F. Kennedy as president of the United States, the popular weekly published a list of Kennedy’s favorite books. Among them was Fleming’s 1957 thriller From Russia with Love. Kennedy was a fan of 007, and he had requested a screening of Dr. No at the White House. With that kind of endorsement, Broccoli and Saltzman confidently moved forward with their new project.
Most of the key behind-the-scenes crew from Dr. No returned—Terence Young as director, Peter Hunt as editor, Ted Moore as cinematographer, and John Barry as composer. This helped ensure that the tone and energy of the first film would be repeated. Screenwriters Richard Maibaum and Johanna Harwood also returned to duty, but Harwood was credited this time around solely for “adaptation,” reportedly because her draft adhered too closely to Fleming’s original novel, while Young and Maibaum elected to get a little more creative with the source material.
In Fleming’s story, Bond is the target of an assassination plot by SMERSH, a Soviet counter-intelligence agency. They lure him to Istanbul, Turkey with a message from a beautiful young Russian code clerk who wants to defect to the West with a decoding machine used for scrambling, sending, and unscrambling top-secret messages. SMERSH, the villainous agency of many Fleming stories, was based on a real Soviet counter-intelligence bureau that existed during World War II. Its name came from the Russian phrase SMERt SHpionam – “death to spies.” For the film, the producers wanted to avoid any direct reference to the Soviet Union, so SMERSH was converted to SPECTRE, which had been briefly introduced as the organization that Dr. No worked for in the previous film.
BOND: Now, she says she works there with the Lektor every day between two and three.
KERIM: How is she going to get the machine over to us?
BOND: Well, she’s leaving that to me. She’ll do anything I say.
KERIM: Anything? My dear James, you are not using this. (Taps his head) It all sounds too easy to me. We don’t even know if she’s telling the truth.
BOND: Well, I intend to find out.
KERIM: Where? In the hotel?
BOND: No, she won’t go there again. She says it’s too dangerous.
KERIM: The old game. Give a wolf a taste, then keep him hungry. My friend, she’s got you dangling.
BOND: That doesn’t matter. All I want is that Lektor.
KERIM: All? (They both laugh)
The scheme at the heart of the film version of From Russia with Love involves SPECTRE launching a multi-layered plot to steal the Lektor decoding machine from the Soviets while assassinating James Bond and embarrassing MI6 at the same time. Rosa Klebb, a SPECTRE operative who defected from the Soviet Union, leverages her former role as a Russian officer to recruit the unwitting young cipher clerk Tatiana Romanova to lure James Bond to Istanbul. The plan calls for Tatiana to send a message that she wants to defect with the Lektor, but only if she can turn it over directly to 007. Once Bond falls into the trap, SPECTRE agents will kill him as revenge for the death of Dr. No in Jamaica the previous year.
From Russia with Love is a rarity in the Bond franchise in that it is as close to a direct sequel as any of the films in the series up to the Daniel Craig era. Beyond SPECTRE’s desire for revenge of the death of their top operative, another link to Dr. No, is the reappearance of Sylvia Trench, the woman Bond bested in the casino and hooked up with at the beginning of the first film. When we first meet Bond in Russia, he is enjoying a romantic riverside afternoon with Sylvia, but once again their date is cut short when duty calls. Not so short, though, that they don’t have to time to cut to the chase and get busy before Bond takes off on another mission. Oh, the travails of government work!
These briefly noted connections aside, From Russia with Love is very much its own 007 film, and it introduces a few new characters and features that add nicely to the Bond lore. Sean Connery returns as 007, with From Russia with Love being the second film in his five-picture contract with EON. Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell also return as M and Moneypenny, respectively.
This film marks the first appearance of Desmond Llewelyn as Major Boothroyd, head of Q Branch. Llewelyn, whose character will later be known simply as Q, reprised the role in 17 films until his death in 1999. He is the only person in the Bond franchise, in front of or behind the camera, to work with Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, and Pierce Brosnan. His appearance also ushers in the spy gadget motif that will become a highlight of the franchise and is later co-opted by virtually every spy movie made thereafter.
The tool of the trade in From Russia with Love is a briefcase. Naturally, not any ordinary briefcase. This one has a secret compartment for a knife, fifty gold sovereigns in case you need some quick cash, a folding AR-7 rifle, and a nifty tear gas cannister disguised as a can of talcum powder that detonates if the case is opened the wrong way. And naturally, all these items come in handy later when 007 finds himself in a pinch.
The film also introduces us to Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the head of SPECTRE. To be fair, we only know him in From Russia with Love as Number One, and we never see his face, only tight shots of his hands petting a fluffy white cat that sits on his lap and is as mean as piss to everyone except its master. The man who got the job playing Number One’s hands was Anthony Dawson, the actor who played the hapless Professor Dent in Dr. No. The voice was supplied by character actor Eric Pohlmann. Another newcomer to the franchise who would become a recurring face in later Bond films is actor Walter Gotell. In this film, the broad-chested actor plays Morzeny, a top thug for SPECTRE. Gotell later played KGB General Gogol in every Bond film from The Spy Who Loved Me to The Living Daylights.
The cast also boasts a colorful list of characters unique to this film. The character upon which the whole story pivots, Russian cipher clerk Tatiana Romanova, is played by Daniela Bianchi. The Italian model and actress was runner-up in the 1960 Miss Universe pageant and had performed in only a couple of films before being cast as the bait to lure 007 to Istanbul. Romanova, who initially thinks she is working for Russian intelligence, ends up being an unwitting pawn of SPECTRE, luring 007 to Istanbul with the promise of a Lektor decoder. SPECTRE guesses right that Bond’s ego won’t allow him to pass up meeting the beautiful young woman and snatching the decoder even though he senses that it’s a trap. Naturally, like most women in the world of espionage, Romanova can’t resist Bond’s charms and falls in love with him, but she later saves 007’s life, proving that when push comes to shove, she is no ordinary femme fatale.
Bond is a world traveler, but everywhere he goes he can always count on at least one ally, even though that ally generally gets killed before the end of the mission. This time around it is Kerim Bey, head of MI6’s intelligence station in Istanbul. Played by renowned Mexican actor Pedro Armendáriz, Kerim Bay is a master of his trade with contacts in every shadowy corner of Istanbul. He is serious about his work, but he also takes a light-hearted approach to the Cold War shenanigans between East and West. Kerim frequently reminds 007 of the tit-for-tat competition that exists between the Soviets and the British in Istanbul, with both sides counting on a certain degree of openness to keep things from getting hot.
Hot is exactly how SPECTRE likes it, though, and they deploy former Soviet intelligence officer Rosa Klebb to Istanbul to stir up trouble while overseeing the mission to assassinate 007 and steal the Lektor. Klebb is played by actress and cabaret star Lotte Lenya. She is a no-nonsense agent of SPECTRE who sometimes wears eyeglasses so thick that they resemble small goldfish bowls, but she is a trained killer, and not to be trifled with. In a scene that was risqué for 1963, Klebb also exhibits her lesbian tendencies when she recruits Romanova to seduce 007, getting a little too touchy-feely for the young Russian’s liking.
Klebb is the perfect SPECTRE operative, ruthless and intelligent. But she can’t do the job alone, and she brings with her the first, and one of the most impressive, henchmen of the 007 franchise. Red Grant, a hulking, beady-eyed psychopath, follows Bond around Istanbul like a shadow, leaving a trail of Russian, British, and Turkish bodies in his wake. Grant is played by Robert Shaw, a British actor and writer who had already gained a reputation on stage and screen for his work. The square-jawed actor’s best work still lay ahead of him when he appeared in From Russia with Love, but he more than holds his own against Connery’s 007. Their climactic meeting on the Orient Express near the film’s end is fraught with tension, culminating in a brutal fight that took three weeks to choreograph and shoot.
Bond: Red wine with fish. That should have told me something.
Grant: You may know the right wines. But you’re the one on your knees. How does it feel, Old Man.
Bond: Old Man? Is that what you chaps in SMERSH call each other?
Bond: Of course. SPECTRE. Then it wasn’t a Russian show at all. You’ve been playing us off against each other, haven’t you? Then it was SPECTRE who killed the Russian agent in the mosque. You? Karem and the other man? And Nash?
Grant: I don’t mind talking. I get a kick out of watching the great James Bond find out what a bloody fool he’s been making of himself. We’re pros, Mr. Bond. I’ve been keeping tabs on you. I’ve been your guardian angel. Saved your life at the gypsy camp. We were keeping you alive so you could deliver the Lecktor. Now that we’ve got it, you and the girl are expendable between here and Trieste.
As with the first James Bond film, From Russia with Love treats its audience to exotic locales and new sites, among them the streets of Istanbul, the Balkan countryside, and the Orient Express. The film also includes some great set pieces, among them the aforementioned fight between Bond and Grant, and Bond and Romanova’s escape from airborne and sea faring SPECTRE agents. These scenes also raised the risk factor of the production, which ran over budget and seemed plagued with complications.
Connery and Grant suffered their share of scrapes and bruises filming the fight in the tiny train compartment, but director Terence Young almost died when his helicopter crashed and sank in a lake. Filming aerial shots for Bond’s escape during the film’s final chase, the helicopter Young was in developed mechanical problems, inverted, and dropped into the water. It rapidly sank, but divers were able to save the pilot and Young, who was ready for the film’s next shot barely 30 minutes later. Bianchi also suffered injuries in a car accident during a trip to set when her driver fell asleep at the wheel.
Saddest of all was when Armendáriz was diagnosed with terminal cancer during the production. His health deteriorated rapidly, but he insisted on completing his work so that his family would be assured financial security. A double was employed during long shots, and sometimes a person would be standing just off frame to help prop up Armendáriz so he could film close-ups. After completing his post-production dialogue looping, the actor returned to the United States and committed suicide in his hospital room at the UCLA Medical Center. Armendáriz’s legacy was remembered in the Bond franchise decades later when his son appeared in Licence to Kill as the powerless president of the country run by drug lord Franz Sanchez.
Unhappy with some elements of the script, including the jumbled opening moments, Young ordered reshoots of key early scenes while editor Peter Hunt started assembling the rest of the film. The production team worked around the clock to get the film ready by its October 1963 release date. EON had contracted to deliver a new Bond film every year to United Artists and failure to comply would spell disaster for the franchise. Just like 007, the filmmakers saved the world in the nick of time.
From Russia with Love opened in the United Kingdom on October 11, 1963, and in the United States five months later. It was a solid hit, earning more at the box office than its predecessor and securing a legion of Bond fans who would remain loyal and grow in number as time went by. Critically praised as a tightly constructed thriller, Russia is also a straight-up, no frills espionage caper that doesn’t involve megalomaniacal villains with hare-brained schemes to take over the world. What we see on screen is relatively plausible as spy movies go, and that would become increasingly rare as the Bond series continued. Later films would still be fun and exciting, and in some cases superior to From Russia with Love, but that film’s success established a trend in which each film would have to outdo its predecessor, raising the bar to dizzying new heights.
How high? Find out when James Bond returns in the next Ian Fleming thriller, Goldfinger.